I’ve been a vegetarian for about a year and a half now, and reduced my meat intake for a couple years before that. This wasn’t a complicated or difficult process, despite what some people seem to think. The most difficult part of being a vegetarian (at least for me) is dealing with situations that arise when one is with friends and family who aren’t also veg*n. Since I’m fresh off the holidays and have spent the past six days with family, none of whom are veg*n, I wanted to share just a few situations that can be tricky to deal with. But first, a few definitions, just so we’re clear:
- Vegetarian: A person who does not eat meat.
- Vegan: A person who does not eat or otherwise use any animal products (e.g., dairy milk, eggs, honey, leather, cosmetic products tested on animals).
- Veg*n: A catch-all term used to refer to people who are either vegetarian or vegan, or something similar.
As I said, none of my family is veg*n. I am alright with this; I view moral issues (especially ones concerning diet) as personal choices that must be made by an individual. I am not here to judge, just to follow my own personal standard of ethics. But that can make for some situations that get tricky or somewhat frustrating. For instance, almost invariably, the first question a veg*n gets asked when they mention that they are veg*n is some variant of this: “What do you eat?” I never know how to answer this question. It seems so obvious to me: “Uhh, anything that isn’t meat. You know, like…vegetables and stuff?” When someone asks that question, I get the sense that they think if a person doesn’t eat meat every hour, they will waste away to nothing. I eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of protein, from beans and nuts and seeds to cheese and eggs (hence why I don’t call myself a vegan) and yes, even tofu. A vegetarian diet is pretty easy, although it does require rethinking what your “main” dish will be.
At any rate, this question of “what do you eat?” gets pretty tiring after a while. My aunt, on the road back to my place the other day, asked me out of nowhere, “So do you eat beans?” I couldn’t quite figure out whether she meant “Are vegetarians ‘allowed’ to eat beans?” or “Does your diet consist solely of beans?” or “So do you eat beans, or do you just stick them up your nose and inhale them?” It’s times like this when I shrug my shoulders and wonder why my diet seems as strange and grotesque as some bizarre contortionist circus act. It’s just vegetables, people!
Another issue that can get tiring after a while are the jokes. And don’t get me wrong: I love joking around. I love self-deprecating humour, and I don’t mind the occasional light-hearted joke at my expense from a friend. But there are two issues about jokes regarding my diet. The first is the object of the joke. You can joke about me eating vegetables all you want. Tell me that I’ll turn into a broccoli, or tell me that my head is filled with tofu, whatever. It’s funny! But please, just don’t joke about how you love murdering animals. The whole joke about “the suffering just makes it more delicious” is not funny. I understand that vegetarianism is not a choice that you’ve made personally. But keep in mind that eating meat is something I believe is unethical. Making a joke like that is difficult for me to handle with grace.
If I could make an analogy (not a direct comparison, just an analogy), imagine that you were living in a time when slavery was common and accepted, but you had decided that you were morally opposed to owning human beings. Do you not think that you might get tired of the whole “the forced labour just makes the cotton more soft and fluffy” jokes? Even from your friends? Or…especially from your friends? Make jokes about me all you want, but let’s not make jokes about some other creature’s pain and suffering. And let’s not make jokes about someone else’s strongly-held moral values, to their face. I am certainly not pro-life, but I wouldn’t make jokes about “I’m going to go abort all the babies” in front of someone who was pro-life. That’s cruel and mean-spirited, and the least we can do is treat someone’s strongly-held moral values as something worthy of consideration, even if in the end we choose to reject them.
The second issue regarding jokes has more to do with the sense of a “safe space”. I’m a feminist, and when I am with my feminist friends, we make sexist jokes (or pretend to be sexist), because we know that the butt of the joke is really the sexist attitude that underlies them. In other words, we know that none of us in the group actually holds those views, and thus it becomes a safe space for making that sort of joke. I wouldn’t pretend to be sexist in a context where the person I was talking to was not aware that I didn’t actually hold those attitudes. That has the potential of a) making me look like a fool, or b) making them feel unwelcome.
Well, when it comes to veg*n jokes, I don’t have many veg*n friends. And the ones I do know are spread through several different social groups, so I don’t really have a group of veg*ns to share those jokes with. What I do have are non-veg*n friends and family who make jokes about my vegetarian diet. And again, in moderation, that’s fine. Sometimes these jokes can be used to say, “It’s okay that we’re different because we still love each other.” But at the end of the day, sometimes it just feels like a bunch of people ganging up on me, the “outsider”. It gets tiring because I don’t quite know how to respond. On the one hand, I know these are my friends and family, and I know they care about me. But on the other hand, they are also a bunch of people making jokes about a particular value, despite not holding that value themselves. There’s some fine line between “Okay, this is just some gentle ribbing by my friends” and “Alright that’s enough now, now you’re just ganging up on me”, and I don’t always know where exactly that line is or how to stop it from going over that line. So while I’m not saying that veg*n jokes are off-limits, it can get a little isolating sometimes when my values are always the ones being the target of the joke. It would be nice if non-veg*ns would try to be sensitive enough to make sure that line isn’t crossed. After all, we all live and spend time with people who don’t all share the exact same values, but that sensitivity is a way for us all to get along.
One thing that isn’t a problem for a vegetarian during the holidays is finding enough food to eat. I had Christmas dinners for both sides of my family, both of which had turkey, ham, etc., but as with all large dinners, there are typically enough side dishes to feed a small army. I don’t mind filling up on the mashed potatoes and corn and cauliflower, not to mention all the desserts. I am sure that this can be more difficult for a vegan (e.g., are the mashed potatoes made with cow’s milk?), but at the very least, given enough food, there is probably more than enough to work with. A family who is sensitive to the diet of a veg*n family member will be sure to include dishes that are veg*n-friendly, of course. But for me at least, I don’t like to be a burden on people, and I tend to err on the side of being grateful for the food that my family has spent their time, money, and effort to provide for all of us. At Christmas-time, I couldn’t ask for anything better than a family who loves each other and spends time with each other.
One last thing I wanted to talk about is a question I get asked relatively frequently: “Would you ever go vegan?” It seems like an easy question, but it is surprisingly difficult. Even setting aside the difficulty of predicting your future attitudes and behaviour, it’s a very categorical idea that “vegetarians are this” and “vegans are that”. For instance, while I wouldn’t call myself vegan, I have switched from cow’s milk to soy milk, I don’t eat eggs very often, I don’t buy anything made with leather, and I’ve tried a couple vegan recipes here and there. So maybe that doesn’t make me vegan, but it might be accurate to say that I’m “going vegan”, i.e., I’m headed in that direction. So would I ever go vegan? I guess you could say I already am going vegan. I just haven’t taken the time and effort to fully research everything and look for other ways to cut out animal products. But even vegans must continually go through that process. There are always more products to research, more understanding to be gained, more research being done about environmental impacts (which has an impact on the habitats of animals, of course), and so on. So while “vegan” is a label for people who don’t use animal products, it’s also a process, as is “vegetarian”. It’s a process of thinking critically and deeply about one’s actions and how that has an impact on others. Perhaps the labels are better seen as signposts for where a person is in that process.
These are some of the issues that the holidays can bring for some veg*ns. Of course, everyone’s experiences are different, and I can only speak from my own. But I think they are issues that deserved some exploration. The holidays in particular are times when veg*ns and non-veg*ns need to get along at the dinner table. It’s not wrong to ask questions to seek understanding, and it’s also not wrong to poke some fun here and there among friends and loved ones, but sensitivity is something everyone can use to help navigate differences in values and attitudes. For my part, I’m happy to answer questions that people have (although I prefer that we get past the “what do you eat?” questions), and I’m alright if it’s spiced with a bit of humour. All I can hope for is a bit of sensitivity and an open mind, because rethinking how we treat animals requires challenging some cultural assumptions and norms. But I think it’s important all the same.